Commentary

Peyton Manning has Broncos abuzz

Addition of future Hall of Famer raises expectations for Denver in AFC West

Originally Published: August 7, 2012
By John Clayton | ESPN.com

Thanks to the decision-making of John Elway and the optimism created by the signing of Peyton Manning, the business model of the Denver Broncos couldn't be any better.

Manning helped to sell the last available luxury suites at Sports Authority Field. Loyal fans made sure the Broncos rank among the top three in season-ticket sales this season, amazing for the nation's No. 18 media market. On Saturday, the Broncos drew 41,304 for a scrimmage, easily eclipsing the team's previous record for attendance at a scrimmage, 20,782 in 2010. A league-high 21 radio stations compete for Broncos content.

The Mile High City is sky-high since Manning joined the team, and rightfully so. Elway, a Hall of Fame quarterback, put the Broncos on the football map. Manning, a future Hall of Famer, has Broncos fans hoping their GPS points to the playoffs.

Here are the five observations from Broncos training camp.

[+] EnlargePeyton Manning
AP Photo/Jack DempseyEven at less than 100 percent, Peyton Manning provides a significant upgrade over Tim Tebow.

1. Manning looks good enough: Even if the Broncos signed Manning at 85 percent of his skill set, it was a remarkable acquisition. Tebowmania was fun, but it was shallow. Though he would never say it publicly, Elway knew Tim Tebow couldn't sustain success as a quarterback. Tebow wasn't an accurate thrower, and eventually defensive coordinators would have found ways to stop his style of option football. Manning's knowledge and experience trump Tebow's legs and competitiveness. Coming off four neck operations, Manning knows he's not 100 percent as a thrower, but he's good enough to compensate. Because he had a neck fusion procedure, his most inconsistent throws might be to his right, where he has to plant his right foot, extend his arm and fire. He'll get better as the damaged nerve in his neck regenerates and full arm strength returns. Throwing to his left appears to be no problem. Throwing accurate, short passes in the middle of the field isn't an issue. He shows flashes of being able to throw the deep ball, something that was inconsistent in his final season on the field in Indianapolis, in 2010. More than anything else, Manning provides credibility for the Broncos. His presence alone makes them a contender for the AFC West title.

2. A bigger and badder Willis McGahee: McGahee turns 31 in October, which is ancient for a running back. Since college, McGahee has conquered doubts, and he has an answer this year. He dedicated himself to the weight room and arrived in camp a muscular 245 pounds, about 10 pounds heavier than last year. His upper body is ripped. His body fat dropped to 9 percent. He's coming off a successful season in which he rushed for 1,199 yards and averaged 4.8 yards per carry. The presence of Manning could help his game. Once Tebow took over as the starter, defenses stacked the line against the run. That forced McGahee to run against eight- and nine-man fronts. The threat of throws from Manning will create more seven-man boxes and running lanes for McGahee. The Broncos have options in the backfield. They drafted speedy Ronnie Hillman in the third round to give them a younger version of Darren Sproles. While McGahee feels secure about his role in this year's offense, a former first-round pick, Knowshon Moreno, is facing a career crisis. The Broncos' top pick in 2009 is listed fourth on the depth chart behind McGahee, Lance Ball and Hillman, and he's fighting just to make the team.

3. Does Manning have enough at wide receiver? As he proved in Indianapolis, Manning can make the best out of any group of receivers. He has some interesting things to work with in Denver. The best raw receiver he has is 6-foot-3 Demaryius Thomas. In his final six games last season, including two in the playoffs, Thomas caught 31 passes for 601 yards -- and that's with Tebow at quarterback. If Thomas can average five catches a game from Tebow, imagine what he could do with Manning. The rest of the receiving corps should allow Manning to work the middle of the field. Brandon Stokley was Manning's favorite slot receiver in Indianapolis. Eric Decker is also a good slot receiver. The Broncos signed former Bengals slot receiver Andre Caldwell and have him working on the outside. They have journeymen Jason Hill and Matt Willis on the outside but could use one more outside threat, although that's something on next year's shopping list. The Broncos will go week by week between packages with three receivers and schemes with two tight ends. At least the Broncos feel solid about having Jacob Tamme and Joel Dreessen as Manning's top two tight ends.

[+] EnlargeDJ Williams
Justin Edmonds/Getty ImagesD.J. Williams faces a six-game suspension to begin the season, hurting Denver's depth at linebacker.

4. Concerns at outside linebacker: On Monday, the Broncos signed 36-year-old Keith Brooking to provide necessary depth at linebacker. Weakside outside linebacker D.J. Williams is fighting a six-game suspension, so John Fox has to figure out alternatives for replacements. Wesley Woodyard is the current option, but there is little behind him. If Brooking makes the team, he could help on the weak side or in the middle. His signing shows the Broncos aren't totally confident in Nate Irving, a third-round choice in 2011. There is also a question at defensive end. When the Broncos released their depth chart Monday, Robert Ayers, a 2009 first-round choice of former coach Josh McDaniels, was listed behind Jason Hunter. The coaching staff is trying to kick-start Ayers into playing more to his potential. If he doesn't, Hunter will start.

5. Improvements in the secondary: Manning's signing is clearly the biggest improvement for the Broncos. Some moves in the defensive backfield might rank second. The Broncos gave a one-year contract to former Saints cornerback Tracy Porter, whose man-to-man skills will work well opposite the ageless Champ Bailey. Free-agent addition Mike Adams replaced the retired Brian Dawkins at safety, but the Broncos now have depth at the position. They signed Drayton Florence from the Bills to be their third corner. Rahim Moore is battling Quinton Carter for the starting free safety job.

John Clayton

NFL senior writer